A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Foundations of the Faith We Share, Part IV: Everywhere & Always
June 29, 2017
Changelessness – what a wonderful, comforting state of affairs, at least for those who have it good in life. Human beings in general, and Presbyterians in particular, like their institutions to change as little as possible. We’ve worked long and hard to shape them as they are, and we want to enjoy the fruit of those labors uncontested by others.
When we say we want the church to change, it is usually less a desire for new ways of being church than for a renewal of old times. If only our Sunday School could get back its former glory. If only all those Sunday morning extracurricular events that compete with Sunday School would go away. If only we had a wonderful young man with a beautiful and dutiful wife and children as our pastor, we’d attract young families again. And they would want the church to stay just as it is now.
After years of being his pastor, I had the privilege of being given a look at Jack’s treasure box of things he prized most in life. He was well into his seventies, yet the box was small; only his most precious things made it in. He pulled out the church bulletin from his day of Confirmation some sixty years earlier, in perfect condition. Aside from the plain typewriter font, I noted that the order of worship today looks exactly like it did sixty years ago, to which he responded with sparkling eyes, “Ain’t that the beauty of our church!”
Resistance to change is not attractional behavior. Novelty attracts crowds far better than does the tried-and-true, but it doesn’t keep them for the long haul. Some things in the church must change if the church is to attract new disciples to Jesus; some things in the church must not change if it is to persevere. Most churches that thrive for a long time are both deeply invested in core commitments and always ready to find new ways to reach people with the Gospel.
The church everywhere and always has confessed foundational convictions. The first bedrock profession of Christian faith goes back to the apostles: “Jesus is Lord!” (Romans 10:9) It is essential to Christian identity everywhere. Our Presbyterian Book of Confessions begin with the church’s most ancient universal faith summaries, the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. They are so basic to Christian faith that they are essentially changeless. Our Book of Order calls them “statements of the faith of the church catholic.” (F-2.03) The word catholic means literally “everywhere the same.” The Book of Order goes on to summarize the essence of these creeds as “definitions of the mystery of the triune God and of the incarnation of the eternal Word of God in Jesus Christ.” (Ibid)
When we read the Bible with the whole church of Jesus Christ, everything points first to this: The mystery of the God whom Scriptures reveal as Father, Son, and Spirit, incarnate and manifest as the eternal Word in Jesus Christ. This God is no static cosmic force, but in essence personal. To confess Christian faith is to place our trust in personal hands. Just as the God in whom we trust is essentially a person, so our faith is essentially personal.
Trusting in the personal character of God is to trust in the mystery that God is not just one person, but persons that are fully distinct yet indivisible. Likewise, our personal faith is not something we possess alone; it is indivisible from the faith and life of the whole church. Our faith is utterly personal, yet utterly communal. “Personal Christianity” apart from the bosom of the church is an oxymoron.
This is why we baptize always into the membership of the church. Baptism is an incorporation into the life of the church, which is itself incorporated into the life of the Triune God.
The ancient desert saints characterized the mystery of the Trinity as perichoresis, a Greek word meaning literally dancing in a round. It is community united in movement – always moving, never separating. Trusting in the God of the Bible by confessing Jesus as Lord is like taking his outstretched hand and joining in the dance. The vitality of the church springs from the divine dance in which it participates.
To be Christian is to participate in the life of the Triune God extended to us through Jesus. This is the essential source of Christian identity. Everywhere. Always.
Your dance partner,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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